Tuesday, August 18, 2015

How the press reports nuclear power

In 2011 one of the four largest earthquakes ever recorded caused a massive tsunami - also one of the largest ever recorded - to hit Japan with devastating conseqences.

The number of confirmed deaths caused by the tsunami is 15,891 as of April 10, 2015.

Yet, after the first couple of days of the tragedy, the aspect of this natural disaster which received far and away the largest part of the media's attention has been the fact that it caused a radioactive leak at the Fukushima nuclear plant - a radiation leak which to date has not caused a single confirmed death. (Three people died from the Tsunami at Fukushima, but two of them were drowned and one caught in a crane,)

Worse, a constant stream of hyped and overdramatized reporting of Fukushima caused governments around the world to rein back on nuclear power plans, thereby shifting energy generation to other forms which do more damage to the environment.

A few years back there was a rail crash disaster in Britain which killed four people and generated a mass panic about rail safety. The Economist magazine did an analysis of the extra traffic diverted to roads (a much less safe mode of travel) as a result of the panic reaction to that accident and concluded that the estimated number of extra road deaths because of the reaction was about five - in other words the badly managed reaction to the disaster may well have killed more people in extra road accidents than the disaster itself did.

I've not seen that anyone has done an equivalent analysis in respect of Fukushima and it may be impossible to do it, but it would not in the least surprise me if this was another case where the over-reaction to the accident did more damage in terms of both money and lives than the accident itself.

Now the media are doing it again with the warning from the Japanese authorities that people who live near the volcano Sakurajima may have to evacuate as it is possible that the volcano may be about to become active.

Guess which has been given more prominence in newspaper headlines: the fact that this volcano is 12 kilometres from a city of more than half a million people or the fact that it is 50 kilometres from a nuclear power station.

You've guessed it: there have been headlines like "Massive volcano looks like it's about to erupt and it's dangerously close to a nuclear power plant."

I gather the current received wisdom is that sensitive and important infrastructure facilities like nuclear power plants should be at least 100 km from active volcanoes, so the fact that the plant is 50km (31 miles) away is a legitimate story. But it should have paled into insignificance beside the fact that the city of Kagoshima, (population about 600,000),  is much nearer - to be precise 12 km away.

Certain elements of the media can never resist a good scare story and they seem to recall anything nuclear as fair game.

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